Post Road Magazine #21

Recommending "First Love" by Samuel Beckett

William Walsh

As if you've never met him before, Samuel Beckett takes pains to introduce himself to you in each work. He greets you as a stranger every time you meet him on the page. This is well because getting to know him is a singular reading relationship.

The unnamed narrator of "First Love" will be familiar to you. You've met him before. He is much like Molloy and Malone and the unnamed narrator in The Unnameable. He's not unlike Belacqua from Beckett's short story "Dante and the Lobster"—he even uses the term "lepping." And like Krapp, he has a taste for bananas. But while Belacqua's first love is blissful Beatrice, from Dante's Inferno, and Krapp spools and re-spools his recorded memory of lovingly reading a "page a day, with tears" of Fontane's Effi Briest, the narrator of "First Love" is less literary and more corporeal: he marries a prostitute named Lulu.

He has "heard of the thing" called love at "home, in school, in brothel and church." He has made a study of love "in prose and verse. . .in six of seven languages, both dead and living." When Lulu finds him alone on a bench beside a canal, he makes room for her on the bench and endures her intimacy. Of course, Lulu returns and begins what he sees as a pursuit of him. He explains that she should visit him "less often, far less often, less often to the point of no more." But his need for her grows, and he soon admits that his "thoughts were all of Lulu."

Eventually, he moves into Lulu's apartment. He empties one of her over-furnished rooms of everything but a sofa, which he faces to the wall. He climbs over the back of the sofa "like a dog into its basket," and there he stays while Lulu loudly plies her trade day and night. He requests parsnip, a chamber pot. Then Lulu announces that she is pregnant and the baby will be his. She undresses to prove her condition, showing him her breasts. "The haloes are darkening already," she says. "Abort, abort," he says. "And they'll blush like new."

Though Beckett was not my first love, he was a very close second to James Joyce. As an undergrad, I minored in Irish Studies at Stonehill College, and the Beckett question that came up in class again and again was this: is he Irish? I read about the Irish diaspora and accepted as creed Joyce's catechism of "silence, exile, and cunning." But Beckett took his exile further. He called Ireland the land of his "unsuccessful abortion." His was an exile of land and language. At the start of World War II, Beckett could have returned to safety of Ireland, but he stayed on in Paris, saying he preferred "France at war to Ireland at peace."

I bought my copy of "First Love" in Dublin in 1995 when my wife and I were on our honeymoon. I thought I knew all of Beckett's work, but here was something new to me—a 4" x 6" Penguin Syrens minibook, just thirty-five pages plus a preface by Christopher Ricks. Beckett wrote the story in 1945, one of his earliest in French, but it did not see light until

1973, after he had won the Nobel Prize and his publishers were eager to get something new to market.

I recommend "First Love" by Samuel Beckett because it is a fine way to first meet Beckett. And, if you already know Beckett, "First Love" is a fine way to meet Beckett again for the first time. You might discover, as I did recently, that Beckett begets Beckett, and find yourself re-reading/remeeting all of your old Beckett. And that's a fine how do you do.

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